How to begin communicating better in your relationships

4 December, 2010

John and Julie Gottman can predict whether a couple will make it or not, with 90% accuracy, from watching only 3 minutes of their interaction with each other. Quite mind boggling isn't it? Their theories come from 40 years of researching and analysing what couples say to each other and the manner in which they say it; examining in detail every element of a couple's interaction, including verbal (words and voice tone), non-verbal (body language, gestures, facial expressions) and physiological (rate of breathing and heart rate).

The Gottman's contribution to understanding the ingredients to successful relationships has been hugely significant and groundbreaking for psychology and in the couple counselling field - dispelling many of the myths about what "makes relationships work" previously assumed true. The focus, which fits in with the NLP model, is looking at what happy couples do that works (as oppose to traditional models of couple therapy which look at what isn't working).

This article is the first in a two part series. In this first one, I am going to use Gottman's research and my own professional experience as a coach to explore ways in which you can communicate better in ALL of your relationships. In the second article (next month) I will more specifically talk about how to communicate to make your romantic partnerships work. I love working with couples and teaching them how to transform their communication with each other and seeing what a difference it makes: my proudest success so far was a young couple who had been together for nearly 10 years and were on the verge of breaking up when they first came into my office. 2-3 months later after a combination of individual and couple's therapy, they came into my office and announced their engagement and their pregnancy and were married one month later!

So, let's focus on how to communicate better in all your relationships to make them a better place for you and for the other person. This topic is a real passion, and writing about it this time of year is important as many of us prepare to spend Christmas with our family members or in-laws. Something then for all of us to consider over the holiday period!

As someone with many personal relationships and professional relationships, I know as well as anyone else that when any two people come together and form a relationship - no matter what the specific nature of the relationship is - we will experience road bumps: we misunderstand each other, we disagree, we argue, we fall out, we get irritated or annoyed with one another, we love each other sometimes and hate each other at other times, we can't understand why they do that we wish if only they changed that thing about themselves then it would be easier to get on...and so on and so forth. No matter what kind of person we are and intend to be, there are no completely smooth paths in any relationship.

A personal belief I have is that most things can get solved with some good quality communication. Sometimes not, of course, which requires a different course of action, like changing the relationship in a way which means you don't interact with that person anymore. The trouble with good quality communication is there aren't many of us that know how to do it: we don't get taught at school. We also have one more thing that significantly gets in the way: our own head and the stuff that goes through it ("But surely it's the other person's fault, not mine! They're the ones that are irritating!"). I hear you. But, alas, 'fraid not - think again! It is as much (if not more) about you as it is about them, as you are about to discover. And how cool is that - considering the only person you have the power to change is yourself?! How convenient!

The stuff that goes on in your head that gets in the way

1. Filters

Your brain does an amazing amount of things for you every single day of your life. Most of those things are incredibly useful (keeping you breathing, turning on your resources when you need them) and some things turn out to be not so useful. One thing that can turn out to be not so useful is the set up of a filter.

A simple example: some kind of event occurs - let's say your flatmate doesn't do the washing up. You notice it. The next day, same thing happens and you notice it again. You create a belief in your mind "my flatmate doesn't do his fair share of the washing up".

Now we have our belief - the beginning of our filter. What a belief does for you is unconsciously (i.e. you are not aware) seeks out evidence to confirm itself as true. When you were young (if you grew up in Western culture) you believed Santa Claus was real. It didn't matter that Santa Claus looked and smelled like dad, and that you didn't actually have a chimney, and mum and dad seemed to know exactly what was in your parcels. You believed it, happily, with your child brain. Until one day, a combination of maturity and a massive piece of evidence coming along to the contrary, that you changed your belief (if you haven't yet - sorry for being the one to break it to you).

As a belief seeks out supportive evidence, it filters out contrary evidence, simply because your brain can only process a certain amount of information at a time. It deletes, distorts and generalises information to confirm itself as true.

For example with the belief of "my flatmate doesn't do his share of the washing up" every time you see the washing up on the bench - you go to yourself "See! There he goes again!". This strengthens the belief.

You may therefore delete the fact that he did do the washing up last night, or that he put away the dishes, or that he cooked you dinner, or that he offered to feed your friend's cat for you. You distort - it becomes he "never" does the washing up, as oppose to "he didn't do it those two times" and you generalise "he never does ANYTHING around the house!".

All of this stands out in your brain is the times he didn't do it, which is therefore all you will remember about him. It may mean you are accurate and it may mean that because you are focusing on this one part of the picture only, you are automatically missing the other parts of the picture.

(This is a VERY simple example - try not to take it too literally. And you can see that with beliefs like "no one in my family cares about me" or "she doesn't love me" how sticky this can become in relationships).

2. Mind Reads

This is a cracker! Especially in romantic relationships, when we think we know someone well we know exactly what they're thinking. We are so good at knowing what other people think - aren't we? Well, actually, we are not. But we think we are - don't we? Yes, we do! If I had a NZ dollar for every time I heard a mind read pop out of someone's mouth, well, you know what I am getting at.... Some common examples:

They think I am a bad mother

If I don't go to the BBQ, they'll think I am not doing my duties

She obviously thinks I am stupid

She doesn't want to go with me

He obviously doesn't give a shit, why would he?

She doesn't care whether I am here or not

A mind read is just that, what we think other people are thinking, based on our imagination, and without checking with someone, will remain based on our imagination ("But, it's based on past experience!" - that may be so, but without checking and hard evidence, it still remains made up by you, in your head. It could be true, and it also may not be).

3. Adding Meanings

In reality, there is nothing else apart from events which take place outside of you in the external world, and the meaning you make of those events in your head. It's a broad statement, I know, and it is true. We have some cultural meanings and assumptions, which make it easier for two people of the same culture to make the same meaning, sure, but the meaning still remains made up by us, it's not the event itself. I am very careful when I listen to my clients when they tell me something important like "my father passed away" - I don't immediately say "I'm sorry to hear that" as is acceptable in Western society. It's not because I don't care, it's because I don't know what it means to them yet. They could be sad and grieving, they could be delighted. It's not my place to place a meaning on it, I want to find out what it means to them. Death and grief are good examples of the difference in meaning attached an event. In Western culture, someone dying is a bad thing, and it is appropriate to grief, usually for a long time. In eastern Buddhist cultures like Thailand for example, death is a celebration, as the person moves through a spiritual evolution into the next life. Westerners have mournful funerals and dress in black, in Thailand they have a party which usually lasts for three days.

In relation to another person we perceive an external event (i.e. the dirty washing up is still on the bench) and we add a meaning to that event (i.e. they don't care about my wellbeing) which may be accurate, and may not be - and we again won't know unless we check.

In my personal and professional experience, this is easily done, and more often than not is inaccurate. I had a client once who managed an administration team, who would often be convinced that members of her team were upset with her - and would go into all kinds of problem solving and finding solutions ideas and would tie herself up in knots. When I checked with her - how do you know she is upset with you? - the only "evidence" we came up with was that sometimes a certain person would have days when they were quieter than usual. So, you can see, a bit of a leap between the external event (they are quiet today) and the meaning (they are upset with me). Realising this saved her a whole bunch of time and made her a much more effective manager, only dealing with real problems.

Filters, mind reads and adding meanings you can see are all related to, and feed in to one another.

How the effect communication in relationships is that we offer communication based on our internal filters, mind reads and meanings (assumptions) and not the reality of the situation.

For example we believe that mum treats us like we are stupid. We confirm this belief by noticing during a telephone conversation that she'd asked if we'd remembered to buy Aunty Betty a Christmas present. We deleted the fact that she praised us for finishing that big project at work in time for Christmas. We mind read "she thinks I never remember the family" and we listen to her when she asks how we are planning on getting up there for Christmas and attach a meaning that confirms our belief which is "she doesn't trust me to plan anything on my own".

And so our story continues.......

With all of this playing a role in our thinking, we would respond and communicate to that person based on these internal assumptions and not necessarily with the information that is present. For example just because mum asked you whether you bought Aunty Betty her Christmas present yet doesn’t necessarily mean she thinks you are stupid. If we believe and think it does we are more likely to say “why do you ALWAYS talk to me like that?!” and she might say “like WHAT?! I am only asking?! Why are you always snapping at me?!” and so on.

What can you do about it?

The first thing to do is to realise so much of our external communication is based on these internal assumptions, and as you can see, may or may not be based on what is real and present in that moment. A lot of it also is based on the past, not the present. We have a saying in NLP: Perception Is Projection - which means whatever we perceive is what we are actually unconsciously projecting from our internal world, not necessarily what is true, accurate or correct.

The second thing to do is to start separating out what is present at that time and what is based on the projection from your internal world, and base your external communication to that person on this.

1. Pausing before reacting

Before you react in your habitual way “why are you always treating me like I am stupid” – pause a moment. Starting to generate a gap between an external event (mum asking if I had bought Aunty Betty’s Christmas present) and your reaction will begin a new cycle of awareness, which will start giving you new choices.

2. Listen through your ears not through your head

Actually hear the words they are saying instead of the words in your head. When you notice your mind getting your attention more than the words they are saying, play with choosing to tune in your ears again.

3. Start checking the evidence with yourself

Ask yourself an important question: How do I know? How do I know they don’t love me? How do I know they think I am stupid? Not how DID I know (i.e. based on the past) but how do I know right now?

If you wanted to get methodical about it, you could start keeping notes in a little book. Note down:

How do I feel?



Conversation with mum

My thoughts:

She’s always doing this, she thinks I am stupid, she doesn’t approve of what I do

Check the evidence: what did she actually say or do that caused me to think this?

She asked me a question about a present.

Check the contrary evidence: what does she do or say that could cause me to think otherwise?

She did mention that it was fantastic I completed that work project on time. And she did ask me to help choose dad’s present this year.

4. Start checking the evidence with them

Check your mind reads and meanings with the person. This doesn’t need to open a can of words you are not ready to handle, just keep it very simple, and importantly, make it about YOU not about them at this stage, and try and define the actual behaviour, as oppose to your projection about what that behaviour means. For example, there is a huge difference between “when you condescend me” and “when you talk in that louder tone of voice”.

One the person can disagree with, as it is based on your projection, and one is based on an accurate description of the behaviour, which makes it harder for the person to disagree with.

Play with:

When you talk in that tone of voice, I think it means you are upset with me, is that right or have I misunderstood?

When you ask me that question, I think it means you don’t trust my judgment, have I got that right?

5. Give yourself a break and go easy

I am trained in a communication model called Transforming Communication, which takes four full days of training to learn the skills and techniques and probably years of consistent practice to make it a way of life in a relationship or a workplace. The Gottman’s research was done over a 40 year period. The point I am making is you won’t learn this all at once, take it a little a time, piece by piece, understand what’s going on for you first, and expect there to be a difference in how you feel in the relationship, a deeper understanding of yourself and the what makes the other person tick, not an immediate and miraculous shift in everything about that relationship. If you practiced one of the above only over Christmas only, you’d be off to an awesome start! So go easy and SLOWLY and this is about you and not them - for now.

Part two next month.

As always, I welcome your comments and feedback.

Charlotte for coaching and training services.

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